Today marks the beginning of National Volunteering Week. Ellie O’Byrne pays tribute to our unpaid heroes.
Those who choose to give often get a lot back.
This will come as no surprise to the estimated 500,000 Irish people who do volunteer work of some sort each year, but a survey by Volunteer Ireland has revealed the extent of those benefits: 55% of volunteers reported an increase in their well-being and mental health, while 65% said their self-esteem was boosted by volunteering.
Penny Dinners in Cork has a long and illustrious past in providing nutritious meals to those in need, and is an entirely voluntary organisation. Caitriona Twomey has volunteeredwith the charity, which takes food donations from local businesses and individuals to rustle up a daily meal for their service users, for ten years.
Although many organisations, including Penny Dinners, seek volunteers for a few hours per week, or to help out at once-off events, Caitriona is one of a core team of around 10 volunteers that put in longer hours, and also serves as a member of the board of management. She works a full time, seven-day week with the service, putting in between 50 and 70 hours each week.
“Some days are very long; it could be a 10 or 12-hour day,” she says. “Even after I get home, I could get a phone call to go and collect food.” Caitriona’s father, Tom Lynch, was the Cook Sergeant in Collins Barracks, and owned take-aways and food businesses. Following his death, and facing into the free time brought about by her retirement, Caitriona chose to work full-time for the charity he had supported.
“My dad was always very good to Penny Dinners and I just felt that I’d be doing him proud, doing something to remember him by,” she says. “He’d never let anyone go hungry. That always stuck with me; that there were hungry people in our city.” Running a professional kitchen is notoriously tough, no less so when you’re volunteering. But for Caitriona, the rewards are in the sense of being a member of a team, and in knowing she’s making a difference to those in need.
“We see the coalface of poverty, and we see the coalface of despair,” she says.
“We’ve people who come in and cry. Everyone who works here is committed to what we do and does a huge amount of hard work. I think what keeps us all going in there, doing the hands-on, frontline work that we do, is the fact that we can work together as a team. All you need to know is the first name of your co-worker and you can strike up a friendship. It gives you a sense of belonging.”
Cork is something of a hub for the voluntary sector, partly because of the number of organisations based in the second city; of the 11,700 non-profit companies registered in Ireland, Cork has the second-highest concentration, at 1,219, while Dublin has 4,251. Volunteers are also common in arts organisations and for once-off cultural events like the forthcoming Cork Harbour Festival, which uses 320 volunteers for the week-long event.
Joanna Karolini is the acting manager of Cork Volunteer Centre, one of a network of 21 volunteer centres across the country who match prospective volunteers to the organisations that need their services.
By the very nature of volunteering, it’s hard to determine numbers of volunteers or the economic value of the services they provide.
“Volunteering can be very ad hoc, maybe eight to 10 hours annually, or there can be such dedication that someone really does view it as their work,” Joanna says.
“That makes it very hard to pin down a measure or target.” However, there are benefits in terms of social capital that extend beyond the economic: “People give thousands of hours to their communities. Sure, we need paid work in our society,but we also need to work together, and money isn’t always the central issue; it’s more about making things happen.”
Perusing the list of opportunities on the Volunteer centre’s database for Cork, there seems a demand for an enormous variety of skillsets, from event stewarding or staffing shops to providing one-on-one companionship to people with disabilities or writing press releases. How does the Volunteer Centre ensure volunteers aren’t exploited?
“A volunteer should not replace a role that he or she should be paid for, so all the not-for-profits have volunteer policies and procedures,” Joanna says.
“It’s very individual and very targeted how organisations develop their volunteer policy: how they screen, recruit and train their volunteers. It’s also very important that if there are volunteers in a workplace, that both staff and volunteers know what they are doing and are respected equally in their roles.”
From CV building to socialising to developing new skills, it’s clear to see the benefits to the volunteers themselves as well as to society, Joanna says.
“A sense of wellbeing is often about feeling we have a purpose in the society we live in,” she says.
“Our volunteers get a huge amount back from their work. It’s very deep, the impact that that can have, on community and the individual,and the wider context of the country.” “All the organisations out there, please remember to thank your volunteers during National Volunteering Week. I hope we remember to appreciate them, because we need to invest in our volunteers; the more we do that, the more we can achieve.”
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